Shamelessly Acknowledging Our Weight Limit as Healthcare Workers

We’ve spent some time thinking through what it can look like to hold space for rhythms of professional grief. While my specific rhythms will certainly be different than yours, I hope you’ve been encouraged to consider the validity of your professional grief and that you’ve taken time to consider where and how it shows up your life, both in the short- and the long-term.

In my second of two blog posts on holding space for rhythms of professional grief, I shared about how I had begun to shame myself for not being tougher, nicer, and happier as I walked and worked not only under the burdens we carry as healthcare professionals, but also under increasing responsibilities of life as a new mother of two young children. I was buying into the lie that I was and had to be a superhero to everyone. As shame for not being “strong enough” stamped its heavy fist on top of my mountain of burdens, I felt my knees beginning to buckle under the weight I was carrying.

The real demands of healthcare work and everyday life are relentless, particularly in societies that place high value on productivity and efficiency. Healthcare is uniquely heavy in nature because it can be literally life-and-death, especially in an ICU. When I was in nursing school, I worked part-time as a barista in a coffee shop, and that job provided a wonderful balance for my studies and clinical experiences – not only because it provided the caffeine I needed to get through nursing school, but because barista work was productive and yet so far from life-and-death. If I messed up a latte, I could just remake it. We don’t always get this comforting luxury of an easy redo in our jobs as nurses.

When we add internal expectations of ourselves to somehow be able to do the intensity of healthcare work shift after shift, week after week, month after month without meaningful respite, we rob ourselves of the gracious acknowledgement we all need that this work pulls deeply from all sources of our being: physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. For nurses, this is why we recoil with hurt when friends and family say, “Oh but you just work three days a week!” The preparation and recovery time surrounding shifts doing such intense work is significant but not well recognized.

As I grew more honest with myself about the toll these demands were taking, I also grew more aware of the shame I felt for not somehow always being stronger and happier about it all. And then one day as I prepared for my closing talk at a nursing conference, I discovered the wonderfully comforting truth of this very simple traffic sign.

This sign speaks to me of the very objective, straightforward fact that any finite being is going to have a weight limit. It may be a finite being that is strong, built to carry much more than a little bicycle with a front basket, made to endure long distance hauling. But at the end of the day, it remains a finite being that still has a weight limit. There is no judgment in this observation; it is simply a statement of reality.

The truck that is made with current capacity to carry 20T may have, over time, picked up an extra ton or two. What could it hurt? It’s been doing ok so far so why not help out the trucking shortage and carry another two tons? Fifty miles into carrying 22T, warning lights are starting to flash on the dashboard, but the truck is still moving, though it does seem to get less mileage per gallon. Soon enough, however, this finite truck with an objective weight limit is going to lose its ability to keep moving forward unless the driver begins to pay some attention to the warning lights and assess reasons for why the mileage per gallon is now so much lower.

Wisdom, attention, and shame-free objectivity in assessing our own finitude will help us to see when it is time to pull over for a rest stop and a meaningful tune-up. This weight limit is humbling and may feel limiting to those of us who are ambitious, perfectionistic or just very eager to do everything we can for everyone. But at the end of the day, it’s liberating because it allows us to celebrate the capacity we have, and frees us from shame for not having more.

Rest stops are built into a long road for important reasons. Sometimes the driver just needs a nap. Sometimes the truck just needs more gas. Sometimes the truck just needs to offload unnecessary extra weight. But at certain points, the driver needs to look at specific areas in the truck that require more involved tune-ups, repair or outright replacing.

In this moment of pandemic history and in this current healthcare climate, where more is constantly being asked of us who are already so weary from an exceptionally difficult road of travel, we don’t need the additional burden of shame compounding our challenges. We carry a lot, and this is commendable. We also have weight limits, and this is not shameful, but rather liberating in the ways we set boundaries and care for ourselves for the long haul as healthcare workers.

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